It's kickoff time.
Yes, the football season starts soon. At my house, that also means it's kick-out time.
Surrounded by sneering, football-hating females who seem a lot more ferocious than the Cardinal front four, I'm forced to flee whenever I want to watch a game in peace.
Despite every effort to teach them the nuances of the game (a field goal leaves us behind, but we're still covering the point spread"), the members of my family remain convinced that football fans are, as my wife gently puts it, "irredeemable morons."
So I've been scoping out sports bars at which to do my viewing. The goal: to find a comfortable place where I can not only beat the spread, but eat it, too. My first impulse: Head to Majerle's, the city's highest-profile sports grill.
Not since I stared back at a still-moving meal during my Peace Corps days have I encountered more unappealing fare than I faced at Majerle's. There's a word for this sort of wretched stuff, and it ain't "Shazam!"
A shrine to the popular Suns player, the sports bar exhibits so much Dan Majerle memorabilia that future archaeologists may wonder if he was the object of religious worship. A sales counter thoughtfully placed in the dining room will help you turn your abode into a Temple of the Sun, too. A photo behind our booth captured Dan closely guarding Michael Jordan. The shot shows Jordan sticking out his tongue in a classic "blah" pose. Maybe he just ate here.
The menu is composed of items that wouldn't have seemed out of date when James Naismith first nailed a peach basket to a tree. In fact, some of the appetizers may have been personally acquainted with him.
Pizza skins featured stale, fried-potato skins glopped with a bucket of cheese. It's true they weren't moving, but after a couple of bites, we determined that wasn't necessarily a plus.
Gorilla wings, at $5.50 per serving, promised "jumbo" critters, "spicy hot." They're not jumbo, and they're not hot. They may, however, have come from an actual gorilla.
Main courses feature salads, burgers and sandwiches, nothing fancy. And nothing edible.
South "Westphal" fajita salad might be more aptly named after Mr. Ed. After all, it came in a trough-size bowl, stacked with enough shredded, processed, yellow-and-white cheese to fill Shaquille O'Neal's sneakers. A couple of lettuce leaves, a smidgen of avocado, some leaden chicken strips and a zillion tortilla chips rounded out this unappetizing mess. The promised helping of "grilled fajita vegetables" never showed up, perhaps out of embarrassment.
The chewy, blackened, Cajun chicken sandwich never should have gotten off the bench. The only thing blackened was the cook's reputation.
Perhaps the Danny Ainge burger--with cheddar, jack and mozzarella cheeses--was the worst misstep. These days, mindful of the E. coli scare, I ask for my burgers cooked medium. This burger, though, came disturbingly rare. When, in addition to crummy food, you throw in service that can be measured with a sundial--where's the 24-second clock when you need it?--overpoweringly loud music that drowns out the televised sports action, and only one decent beer on tap (a $3 Anchor Steam), you'd think the place would be deserted.
But it's packed, even on Sunless summer nights. Perhaps it's the television monitors, thoughtfully installed in the men's room. Maybe it's Dan Majerle, whose name could probably sell earmuffs to Arizonans in August.
Catch a football game here? I'd rather stay home and watch reruns of the Benny Hinn crusade. Praise the Lord, and pass the chips.
Dan Ryan's Sports Grill, 2121 East Highland, Phoenix, 957-3131. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Dan Ryan's, named after a corrupt Chicago mayor (pardon the redundancy), has a distinctly upscale tilt. Don't look for guys with baseball caps or babes with shoulder tattoos tossing back Bud Light at the bar, tapping their feet to country tunes. The white-collar patrons are more likely to be drinking pints of Moosehead or Double Diamond on tap, singing along to piped-in Fleetwood Mac.
The place, in fact, has a real, 70s, fern-bar feel, without the ferns--lots of wood and brass. Replacing the hanging plants are hanging, satellite-fed televisions, enough so that fans never have to swivel their heads.
The offerings are more ambitious than the usual sports-bar grub. (There's even a kids' menu.) And, to my surprise, the fare was actually good enough to make this a worthwhile dining stop, even for folks who prefer spending their Sundays watching Meet the Press.
Naturally, there are the predictable grazing options, like wings, nachos and a spinach-and-artichoke dip. The dip is pretty tasty, but it came with a measly amount of chips. I usually drop more chips on the floor than arrived with this platter.
On the other hand, how many sports bars serve a fresh, steamed vegetable plate, with a warm vinaigrette, for health-conscious munchers? Dan Ryan's also fashions hearty, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza that won't upset traditionalists. The toppings we tried were first-rate: fresh mushrooms and a generous scoop of sun-dried tomatoes.
If you plan on parking yourself here until ESPN's 11 p.m. SportsCenter telecast, the main dishes should easily see you through. It's clear that the kitchen has its priorities straight: The food here is definitely not an afterthought. The chicken-and-rib combo featured half of the biggest chicken I've ever seen--its relatives must be in some sort of poultry zoo. It was wonderfully moist and plump. And a decent pair of gums was the only tool needed to tear tender, meaty hunks from the half-slab of ribs. But the barbecue flavor left something to be desired--it would need a boost to reach bland. Red potatoes and an unseasoned vegetable medley rounded out the platter.
Two meaty pork chops in a smoky tomato sauce didn't need a televised sporting event as an excuse to eat them. But the cold couscous side dish didn't work any better here than at any of the dozens of other places in town that dump it on the plate right out of the refrigerator.
If your team looks like it won't cover the spread, I recommend the mushroom carbonara pasta. This angel-hair plate takes the sting out of losing, with lots of pancetta, wild mushrooms and Madeira blended into a rich cream sauce.
Burger enthusiasts won't be disappointed, either. This version had lots of grilled, beefy flavor.
Dan Ryan's Sports Grill looks like a strong favorite. Give the points, and take a seat.
Ammaccapane's, 13470 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 863-1199. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.
In contrast to Dan Ryan's fashionable air, Ammaccapane's has the feel of an amiable, neighborhood tavern.
Run by the family of two well-known Valley female golf pros, it has the usual sports-bar furnishings: pool tables, dartboards and lots of televisions, including one big screen for Really Big Games. Framed photos of the golfing Ammaccapanes make it clear who owns the place. The illuminated beer signs make it clear what you're supposed to be doing here.
A huge, rectangular bar that runs 16 seats down the length of one side dominates the room, encircled by neon-orange tubes. Five dining tables hug one wall, and banquettes and bar tables run along the other. An open kitchen fills in the back. Don't look for any steamed-vegetable plates. Munchies are invariably preceded by the words "fried" or "breaded." We sampled artichoke hearts oreganata, a somewhat greasy platter of half a dozen artichokes stuffed with sawdust-dry breadcrumbs. Luckily, Sam Adams, Molson and Beck's on tap enabled us to wash it down.
Pizza is a much better nibbling alternative. We asked the waitress about the best toppings for the eight-inch, $3 bar version. She said the plain, cheese version was so tasty that it didn't require additional embellishment. She was right, and saved us a few cents, too. Ammaccapane's doesn't take any gastronomic risks--hungry fans fill up on subs, burgers, pizza and uncomplicated pasta dishes like spaghetti and meatballs.
Stuffed shells represent the highest level of culinary complexity. Four big shells came drenched with ricotta and mozzarella in a thick cream sauce flecked with bacon and mushrooms. Preceded by a serviceable cup of beef-barley soup, the dish is homey and filling.
The hamburger is a thick, half-pound slab served in a mushy bun with lettuce, tomato and a couple of peppers to play up our Southwestern heritage. Thick-cut steak fries may have come from a freezer bag, but they also came sizzling right out of the fryer. The Ammaccapanes seem to have a way with calzones. For $3.75, customers get a generous-size one fresh from the oven, crammed with cheese, not empty pockets of air.
The sandwiches aren't quite as successful. The Philly cheese steak arrived well-packed, but with unexpected and somewhat fatty brisket. A few more peppers wouldn't have hurt, either. The chicken cutlet parmigiana, meanwhile, consisted of two thoroughly forgettable breaded patties.
A friendly place, Ammaccapane's is a nice spot for refuge on game day: The suds are cold, and the grub is par for the course.